Making Those Moments Last: Dealing With Negativity Bias
Of late, I have been wondering if anxiety is part of our makeup. In evolutionary terms, it would have been far more advantageous to be anxious about an approaching tiger, rather than laid-back and easy-going. Maybe we’re all just wired to be anxious, anticipating an approaching threat. I know we can relieve this with vigorous exercise, and that for many people this background level of anxiety can spiral out of control and begin to impact on everyday function. I guess it wouldn’t have been an advantage to be so fearful to the extent that one’s reflexes were frozen, and couldn’t escape from that tiger.
This evolutionary approach to psychology has been fascinating me, and then I listened to Rick Hanson speak about something he calls the negativity bias. We’re wired to remember negative experiences very differently to positive, he says. Positive experiences float past very quickly and we may not even notice them, nor store them in our memory. However, negative experiences seem very intense at the time and become stored in our implicit memory. This is clearly an advantage, because enjoying blueberries is not as life-preserving as fleeing from a tiger. Fear is a better survival instinct than joy or pleasure. However, we also rely on things like pleasure and a feeling of social connectedness, or connection, because this helps us build relationships within a community and allows us to pool our resources to band together against the threats from outside. (And also creates a village to help us raise our incredibly dependent offspring).
When I heard this, I had an A-ha! moment. This is why I find moments of joy in parenting so fleeting and often difficult to remember in the midst of whining, dirty dishes, snotty noses, attitude and backchat (yes it’s started), and bone-crushing fatigue. Those negative moments are experienced far more intensely than the positive ones. The negative ones can colour a whole day, turning it from a pleasant experience to a crabby, grumpy one, while the positive moments seem so fragile, so tenuous, like bubbles that will pop when I reach out to touch them. This is why. I thought it was just me. I thought I was wired all wrong, that I wasn’t cut out to be a parent.
Rick encourages the savouring of each positive moment, to make it last in our memories and to allow positivity to dominate in our psyche. A dozen seconds, he says, is what it takes for that memory to set in like the negative ones do. Relish the moment, he says, let it seep into you. And I am so enjoying doing this with my children! When I make my son laugh at bedtime with my silly kisses, I do this repeatedly, and drink in the way he looks, laughs, giggles, smells, and kisses me back. I drink it all in, I take my time, I stop. I touch little chubby cheeks, I run my hands through their hair, I look at them for a long long time, I take slow deep breaths and try to remember this very moment, or this very series of moments. At the very least it makes me pause in the middle of my busy day. At best, it will mean that I’ll remember so much more of the good than the bad, and my daily experience will change as a result.
So thank you Rick for explaining my cavewoman mind to me. There are few tigers out there for me, though I scan the horizon all the time. Inside my cave there are two very adorable children and a spunky caveman husband. I feel like a very very lucky cavewoman indeed. :)